By launching the risky reform of the US prison system – limiting investments to isolation and exploring alternatives to the systematic detention – Barack Obama seeks not only to make them more humane prisons: it admits the failure of a system.
In an article published Tuesday in the Washington Post, the US president confirms want to use the final year of its mandate to “rethink” the fate of some 100,000 prisoners confined 23 hours over 24 in a tiny cell.
Often these condemned the “prison within a prison” did receive their food through a trap door, practically deprived of human contact.
“Isolation is profoundly mentally destructive, particularly when imposed on children or young adults,” told AFP John Pfaff, Fordham University law. “Most experts agree on the enormous long-term cost to psychiatric persons placed in solitary confinement.”
Barack Obama speaks in his text the case Kalief Browder, a native of the Bronx teenager, imprisoned in 2010 for one trip backpack.
When he was 16, the boy finds himself in hell Rikers Island, a huge prison complex in New York known for hosting thousands of offenders awaiting trial or not having enough fund their deposit discharge.
Subject to bullying and abuse of detainees and guards, the young Kalief is placed two years in solitary confinement.
When it is released, without having been tried, he is unable to regain balance. He committed suicide just after reaching 22 years.
The policy of solitary confinement “does not enhance our security,” had already stated last year Obama, at a time when he was beginning to test the waters and push for reform.
“Often such an environment may further alienate prisoners, making them more hostile and potentially more dangerous,” he added.
That is why the President has decided to ban in federal prisons the solitary confinement of juvenile offenders and perpetrators of minor offenses.
Highlighting a nation that believes in “redemption” and “second chance”, he also limited to 60 days the first period of isolation for non-recidivist offender.
These measures concern a total of some 10,000 federal prisoners, a minority compared to the offender population managed by the states.
Besides being ultra-expensive, the American prison system is disproportionate effect: with its 2.2 million inmates, it brings together one quarter of the prisoners of the planet.
Cells are overcrowded addicts or psychiatric patients, in whom long confinement often wiped out the last chance of rehabilitation.
For these inmates, Obama intends to develop the supply of care replacing the prison.
In a context marked by electoral safe upmanship among Republican candidates – who accuse Obama of “weakness” – the president walking on eggshells.
Its measures will additionally against ideas deeply rooted in much of society, convinced of the benefits of solitary confinement practiced for two centuries in the United States.
Likewise are convinced that more offenders will stay behind bars, the fewer delinquency.
This now undermined thesis has led to the adoption, in the 1980s and 1990s, ultra-repressive laws, heavy minimum sentences.
Finally, Obama knows that choosing the regulation, it exposes itself to accusations of abuse of power, having angered the majority Republicans in Congress seeking to circumvent the issue of firearms or regularization of illegal immigrants.
However, ensures AFP Professor Matthew Hale, Seton Hall University, “the reform of criminal justice is an ongoing theme on both sides of the political spectrum. So even if the president can expect attacks from the hard right to the fact that it goes too far, it is probably safer with these decrees as it was for example on immigration. ”
Still penal reform Obama holds many of the symbolic.
“The direct consequences of Obama’s decision are almost nil because there is virtually no minors in solitary confinement in federal prisons. The Directive therefore aims to inspire states to change their policies, only a handful of them prohibiting or restricting the isolation of miners, “says Professor Pfaff.